Friday, August 19, 2005

What Communism Does To A Country: Personal Observations of Mongolia

Last year I travelled to Mongolia, a former Soviet bloc nation. In fact, it was the second country in the world to succumb to communism back in 1924, and it remained so until the fall of the Soviet Union. During this time, it was nominally independent, however in reality it was under the firm control of the Kremlin. The following is a series of observations on their society, what the Soviets did to them and how the collectivist attitude has affected the Mongolian way of life.

Spiritual Corruption - for most of the second millennium, a majority of Mongolians have identified themselves as Mahayana Buddhists - the same stream of Buddhism that is followed in Tibet. In fact, the title of "Dalai Lama" was originally bequeathed upon the supreme Tibetan religious figure by Mongolia. It was Buddhism that pacified the Mongolian warrior heart. Historically, Mongolia is a very important bastion of Mahayana Buddhism. What a difference seventy years of communist rule can make to several hundred years of tradition. At some stage in the 1930s, Stalin decided that Mongolian Buddhism wasn't compatible with the atheist regime, and thought Mongolian society was ripe for a spiritual transition. The Mongolian leader at the time refused to carry out Stalin's wishes, and was expeditiously recalled to Russia, never to be seen again. Someone more pliant and ruthless was installed. His name was Choibalsan, and he oversaw the slaughter of - if memory serves me correctly - around 35 000 monks. The purge also included the complete destruction of all Mongolian monasteries, bar two which were retained as tourist attractions, owing to their impressive stature. Post-communism, this spiritual neutering has left the practice in tatters. Mongolian Buddhism is in a degenerate state. When visiting one of the two spared monasteries, several different monks in robes rudely demanded money from me. This is a HUGE no-no for a monk. Many Western and Tibetan practitioners have rushed to Mongolia to try to re-inject true Buddhist principles back into the religion, with limited success. I spent some time doing voluntary work at a soup kitchen in a poor part of the capital. It was run by an Australian Buddhist nun. She told me that there are few true Mongolian monks. Most have girlfriends, drink and seek profit. This is diametrically opposed to the lifestyle they should be leading, and the spiritual practice they should be following, if they are wearing the robes and describing themselves as Buddhist monks.

Alcoholism - Mongolians drink a LOT of vodka. Rates of alcoholism are only guessed at, but they must be sky high. Drunks are everywhere. This unpleasant habit was introduced by the Russians in the 1970s to quell an increasingly restive population. The social problems of alcoholism can be seen everywhere, from battered women to the numerous amputee victims wandering and hobbling around. These folk had the misfortune of passing out drunk in the cold and suffering severe frostbite to their extremities, resulting in amputation. These people are a common sight. However, they're the lucky ones. Many more die the same way - they aren't caught in time and they freeze.

Lack of Work Ethic - generally, Mongolian men struck me as particularly useless and lethargic. The level of maintenance of property across society is dismal. More often than not, the men can't be bothered. In the capital, the newish Japanese buses look, sound and run as though they're decades old. The new (on average, each car would be less than two years old) Korean taxi fleet is unbelievably shabby. I've never seen so many new cars in such disrepair. Along the major boulevarde that runs past the National seat of power, there are huge holes in the road and piles of dirt that workmen have simply left there. It's not uncommon to come across piles of solid concrete in the middle of footpaths - Mongolian workmen are building something, they have extra concrete, so they just dump it in the street where it sets and that's where it stays. My Mongolian tour guide (a single mother) was telling me how she wants to meet a Western man, because she' s tired of all the Mongolian men who won't get jobs because they say working is too hard. An enormous number of the Mongolian youth want to leave the country to go to America. They have wildly unrealistic fantasies about the place. They seem to think they'll step off the plane and people will rush towards them with bags of money. It's hard not to conclude that the national lethargy afflicting so many Mongolian men is a result of the collectivist mentality. It's worth considering that, at one stage, Mongolia conquered and administered the largest landmass the world has ever seen. They made far reaching reforms to vastly complicated Chinese society. Mongolians built Genghis Khan's spectacular capital, Karakorum (destroyed by petulant Chinese in the 19th century). Mongolians have known hard work. No longer. Their society today is propped up by cashmere, copper and foreign aid.

Irresponsibility - there is an unusually high level of single motherhood in Mongolia. This factor is clearly and closely related to the two immediately above. Single motherhood is so common that it's completely socially acceptable. An enormous number of men simply take off when their partner gets pregnant, without thinking twice. The right to child support is legally enshrined, however mothers rarely take this course of action. Men effectively disown their offspring and their partners. This, in a country whose traditionally nomadic culture hangs on the strength of the family unit. From anecdotal evidence, single parent families are a relatively recent phenomenon, appearing only in the last 30 years or so.

Mongolia is a beautiful, beguiling country and the people are friendly and gentle. When reading the history of the place, it's tragic when you realise just how far they have fallen. Free market reforms have lifted the country's prosperity somewhat, however the social influences of the communist mentality continue to run through the Mongolian generations. It will take decades - possibly more than a century - to expunge these sinister forces.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not defending communism, but this article fails to admit that there are other factors for Mongolia's lack of prosperity. First of all, it shouldn't be forgotten that Mongolia's prosperity ended in the 14th century. Since then, Mongolia has been subject to the whims of China and Russia. Also, the argument that collectivism breeds general laziness just doesn't hold water because there are lazy people all over the world and they range in income from Paris Hilton to your local drug addict, most decidedly not exclusive products of Communism. Also, Mongolians in general haven't been city dwellers for too long, and migration to the city has bred these conditions that you blame on laziness. Take a look at Mexico City or New Delhi and you will see worse. And these city's are not and never have been communist. Furthermore, Mongolia does not have the natural resources to compete and thus be more prosperous. And what little they do have, they are forced to sell cheaply to international corporations that give little back to Mongolia. As for the argument about single mothers, you will see this phenomenon in any big city that has experienced mass migration from the countryside. Furthermore, globalization is greatly to blame for this mass migration. Not that globalization is intrinsically a bad thing, but in developing countries, it is felt in a far more violent way and infrastructures tend to not be able to keep up with the new arrivals both logistically, and also due to the fact that becoming accultured to city life takes time, and so people will tend to be a little rougher around the edges. Like taking cowboys from Dodge City in the 19th century and taking them to a Starbucks in New York.

Thu Mar 12, 12:59:00 pm 2009  

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